Having recently graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University, Scott Schoonover applied in 1994 for the post of music director at Union Avenue Christian Church in St. Louis’ Visitation Park neighborhood. He was offered the job in part because of his dream to start an opera company.
At the time, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis was the area’s foremost opera company; however, its reputation was built on presenting operas solely in English, regardless of the original language of various works. In contrast, Union Avenue Opera, conceived under the aegis of the Arts Group of Union Avenue, was founded to bring affordable, professional, original-language opera to the metro area.
In 2000, UAO mounted a production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, with UAO’s initial presentation becoming the first hereabouts to involve projecting English-translation titles. That same season marked the company’s first offering of two operas in the same season. In its 10th season (in 2004), UAO expanded to its current presentation of three operas per season.
Schoonover has helmed UAO as artistic director and frequent conductor since its inception and is thrilled to see his company celebrating its silver anniversary with this 2019 season. It opened earlier this month with a rousing version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to celebrate the centennial of the composer’s birth.
La bohème returns to the UAO stage July 26 through Aug. 3. That’s followed on Aug. 16 through 24 by the area premiere of Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, the true story of Vietnam War veteran Col. Jim Thompson, the longest-held American prisoner of war in U.S. history.
Local premieres have been among the works of most pride for Schoonover. “We’ve done many Midwest and St. Louis premieres,” he says. “A few that spring to mind are Dead Man Walking, Doubt and this summer’s Glory Denied.”
Doubt featured the UAO debut of renowned opera star Christine Brewer, the pride of nearby Lebanon, Illinois. “Each year we are lucky to have a few folks that have performed all over the world,” says Schoonover. “More importantly, I’m very proud of some of the singers who got their start at UAO and who are now world famous. A few examples include Lise Lindstrom, who was our first Turandot [the title character from Puccini’s 1926 opera] and is today the world’s leading Turandot and becoming a famous Wagnerian.
“Bryan Hymel, who was our first Pollione in Norma, has gone on to a huge career in the United States and in Europe,” he adds. “And Russell Thomas, who was our first Cavaradossi in Tosca, is a [New York] Metropolitan Opera leading man.”
In 2018, UAO became a “Professional Company” member of OPERA America – a national organization for artists, administrators and audiences dedicated to supporting the creation, presentation and enjoyment of opera.
In addition to new works and the classics, UAO also has mounted literary gems such a A Streetcar Named Desire by St. Louis native Tennessee Williams, the profound Maxwell Anderson/Kurt Weill musical Lost in the Stars, the Broadway musical standard Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Wagner’s epic, four-part Ring Cycle for audiences who frequently fill the 600-seat Union Avenue Christian Church (660 including the side balcony with its limited sightlines).
“I’m proud of what our teams of designers turn in year after year,” Schoonover says, “even given the challenges of the space and our limited budget.”
Planning a season is an arduous but rewarding task for Schoonover. “I get to select the season each year,” he says, “though I certainly take into account the opinions of my staff – Emily [administrative director Emily DePauw Stolarski] in particular – and our board. I try to come up with a mix of styles and genres while also searching for culturally relevant works.”
With such a list of notable achievements, do any in particular stand out in the mind of UAO’s founder and artistic director? “For one, staying in business and continuing steady growth in all areas for the past 25 years,” says Schoonover. “In a time when many opera companies have failed and closed their doors, we have continued to flourish and see more interest in what we are doing from our community.”
As for the future, Schoonover would like “UAO to become more stable, and at this point, we need more staff to do what we do and to continue to grow … It is a big goal of ours to solidify our infrastructure so that we can do more artistically in the next 25 years.”
As part of its silver anniversary celebration, UAO will hold its 25th anniversary gala on Oct. 10 at The Barnett on Washington at 3207 Washington Blvd. in St. Louis. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will precede a gourmet dinner and musical performances by Kenneth Overton (Lost in the Stars), Elise Quagliata (Doubt) and Marsha Thompson (Nabucco), hosted by Kathy Lawton Brown of radio station Classic 107.3 FM. For tickets and more information, interested parties should contact 314-361-2881 or unionavenueopera.com.
Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Boulevard, St. Louis, 314-361-2881, unionavenueopera.org